Thursday, May 1, 2008

Father Martin Hagan, 1919-2008

It saddens me profoundly that I missed his funeral mass yesterday at the College Church in St. Louis. I hope that he was carried out to resounding choruses of "NICKEL". Fr. Hagan managed the Rec Room in the basement of my High School, which happens to be the largest pool hall in the state of Missouri. Only a thoroughly Jesuit Institution, as St. Louis University High School was and may still yet be, would corrupt its young charges with billiards. Fr. Hagan's famous rule stipulated that anyone who shot a ball off a table and onto the very loud cement floor had to atone for this sin with a nickel. As loud as the drop of a billiard ball was, adolescent shrieks of nickel Schadenfreude always drowned it out. It is better for teenage boys to get their yahs-yahs out through venial jeers than in other far more sinful ways, and I suspect that this was as much Fr. Hagan's rationale as his wish for easy income for the Rec Room discretionary fund. Catholicism at its best provides both for our material needs and our souls. This is, after all, the logic of the Incarnation. Also, Fr. Hagan was insistent that the wages of sin be low, even token, so as to demonstrate the gentle quality of mercy. The acknowledgement--plus the nickel, of course--was enough, and if after a few years of the accumulation of token atonements, you have enough for a new pool table, so much the better.

Fr. Hagan was a bit of a subversive in that he did not believe in heavy penalties. In fact, he went out of his way to protect us from the ever vindictive assistant principle in a notoriously tacky manner. Various days of the year were designated tie days. All of us were supposed to come to school wearing a tie. The obvious intention, of course, was for all of us to look like well-dressed, presentable preppy republicans, but that's not what the rule said. All it required of us was the wearing of a tie on any shirt with a collar. So, if you did not wear a tie, then you got a demerit towards detention. But if you wore a tie, any tie, however loud or gaudy or wrinkled or stained with catsup and on any shirt from an Oxford button-down to a K-Mart Blue Light Special tennis shirt, you were in compliance. Well, some of us would come to school on a tie day not even having met this minimum standard, thereby risking an imminent demerit. But we didn't have to sweat. We could always go down to the Rec Room where Fr. Hagan had a vast assortment of ties, all very ugly. They must have been donated by past members of the English Department. Fr. Hagan saved us from the disciplinarians, demonstrated the absurdity of legal positivism thereby, and gave the English Language another term for a sartorial faux pas, the Hagan Tie.

But what I most remember about dear Fr. Hagan was his intellectual passion to the point of intellectual bullying. I will never ever forget that day in freshmen theology class when he nearly browbeat us to give him arguments against his vehement attacks against theism. The next day, I should hasten to note, he did apologize for unloading on us as he most certainly did. He realized that we were not ready for the dangerous intricacies of the God-debate, and we weren't. The arguments that he gave for the existence of God were, to be honest, not convincing. He could only sketch for us a vague amalgamation of the cosmological and contingency arguments, which, if memory serves, sounded like current Intelligent Design Crap, and he did not even try to answer his argument from evil that he thundered at us the day before. I don't suspect that he was what many a Jesuit has been caricatured to be, a kind of Straussian closet atheist. Closet atheists are not as forthright as he was. Fr. Hagan merely wanted to impress upon us that we cannot rely upon the complacent, unquestioning piety that the nuns had inculcated in us. Growing up Catholic meant having to think, however painful that may be.

There is one Hagan argument that has stuck with me to this day, and that is his argument against abortion. Fr. Hagan as usual went to the very nub of the debate, the question of whether or no the embryo is a person. Fr. Hagan's point of departure was the same as Obama's, agnosticism. We do not know whether the embryo is a person, but it is possible that it is. And as long as there is a possibility of personhood, abortion is as wrong as it would be to drop a hand grenade out a window because you do not know if there are people outside. Fr. Hagan had no use for the viability argument, saying with memorably acid dismissiveness that if it is permissible to kill a human being because he is weak and dependent on one end of life then we can kill the weak and dependent at the other end, and it is very well known that the Netherlands now understands this horrid absurdity as reason.

I attended only one Mass that Fr. Hagan celebrated. That was a special mass that concluded my Freshman Year. True to his aversion to punishment, he pleaded with us not to tease next year's freshmen as we were teased. SLUH has an odious tradition of freshmen being called "FRED". We were all eager to become sophomores so that we could do unto others as it was done unto us much like second graders relish the opportunity to lord their advanced status over the lowly first grade peons. Of course, he knew very well that such taunts were at most silly venialities of silly vain youth, but the motives behind them were all ugly, soul-eroding revenge, and the person who can't manage well small matters can't be trusted to manage great ones. He was trying to melt this vindictive impulse before it snowballed to an imprisoning obsession. Few of us heeded him. Once we became wise fools, we called our underlings "FRED" with sanguine glee. I know I did. The rush of superiority was too tempting. I wish now I heeded the wise Fr. Hagan. I did not, and I now am bitter for it.

I miss you already, Fr. Hagan. May flights of angels carry you to your eternal rest.

Fr. Hagan, pray for me.

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